European Art: 17th-18th Centuries

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Portrait of a Chorister, c. 1620s

Marcantonio Bassetti

Italian, 1588-1630
Oil on canvas
31-1/2 x 26 in. (80.01 x 66.04 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation, from the Estate of Jennifer Jones Simon
M.2010.1.178.P
© Norton Simon Art Foundation

On view

Dressed in a white surplice, a chorister looks out at us, holding a hymnal. The intimate portrait is distinguished by its unpretentiousness and direct observation, important elements of Bassetti’s style, and consonant with the Baroque pictorial language initiated by Caravaggio and the Carracci. A sense of the unknown subject’s inner life is vividly conveyed by means of his expressive gaze, with lips slightly parted as if to speak. The informality of the portrait suggests that it may have been a friend of the artist. Though the readable music is accurate for the period, its identification eludes us because it shows only the tenor part and contains no text.

Marcantonio Bassetti was a native of the city of Verona. As a youth he studied the paintings of Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese in Venice. In Rome, where he is documented in 1616, Bassetti assimilated the characteristics of Caravaggism, some of which appear here—the unarticulated background, pitched in shadow, with a strong directional light source to illuminate the sitter in a moment of suspended action. Bassetti’s great facility with brushwork, in the creamy application of pigment on the vertical folds of the surplice, in the deft touches that describe the lace trim, and in the sensitive build-up of flesh tones on the chorister’s face and hands, recalls his training in the Veneto.

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